when pictures fail me…
“Okay, okay—it’s coming up! Here I come, here I come!” — Bert Sommer (1979)
The lanky thirty-year-old nudged his friend; the two of them slouched down in the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard sharing popcorn and a joint, their legs in faded jeans draped over empty seat backs. The year was 1979, the film, Woodstock. A futuristic geodesic-domed movie house was the setting for the tenth-year anniversary showing of the Oscar-winning documentary, out in La-La-Land.
The excited commentator’s frizzed-out hair would have been a blind spot for anyone in the rows behind him, facing the largest contoured movie screen in the world. For just a few seconds the same hair scribbled a fuzzy cameo frame while the camera zoomed in on his profile—puckered lips’ quick intake from a bowl of weed. The toke was captured at 32 feet high and 86 feet wide, as the two friends gawked and laughed. Just one moment in a cinematic montage of kids smoking dope against Arlo Guthrie’s paranoia classic “Coming Into Los Angeles” is all you see of the young hippie during the film’s 185 minutes. But he wanted to share the buzz with his pal.
Meanwhile, the entire ten-song set he had performed onstage the first day of Woodstock was . . . somewhere. Who knew exactly? Deep in the Warner Brothers vault, if the tapes existed at all. Other than this tiny mosaic of the twenty-year-old singer-songwriter as part of a crowd a half a million strong, Bert Sommer didn’t make the cut.
“(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” was penned by British rocker Nick Lowe not long after the post-Woodstock hangover. Was he being ironic, or was this a true lament? The song gathered steam as part of the New Wave, with Elvis Costello wailing the lyrics across radio airwaves at the same time Bert Sommer sat in that futuristic theater, caught in a time bubble. Dwarfed by his larger-than-life former self at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Bert might have wondered (without irony) if he still was going to be the next Barry Manilow—all but promised by the record business powers-that-be in the mid-Seventies. But that was slipping away, like so many other brass rings he had grasped and even held. Still, he had to try. If he was aware of the New Wave fast approaching, Bert would only need to catch it. Optimism and his God-given gifts might, this time, be enough to help him ride out any rough transition. Smiles, words, and music bubbled to the surface like always, ever since he was a kid.
Fast-forward to those lining up in 1994 to see the Woodstock twenty-fifth anniversary director’s cut—mostly middle-aged suburbanites wanting to recapture the feel-good vibe of their youth. Some were their offspring, Nineties hipsters wondering what all the nostalgic flower-powered fuss was about. And others who regretted being born in the wrong decade— “hippies” at heart in an era of Grunge. Director Michael Wadleigh had added thirty-nine minutes, but other than a backstage exchange between Joan Baez and a stagehand, captured in the original (“Who’s on?” Joan asks. “A guy named Bert Sommers [sic]”), there was still no record of his first live gig.
Monterey Pop filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker also had a documentary debut for the twenty-fifth anniversary. He had been shooting on his own those three days, but now also had access to the archival mountain that was Wadleigh’s excess footage. Woodstock Diaries was an alternate take on the event, aired on television for the anniversary, and packaged for video. It was here that Bert Sommer made his true film debut.
Now people noticed. Who is this guy? Awe and unanswered questions contributed to a ripple effect in the pre-internet pool of culture historians and buffs, music lovers and poets—and those who had assumed that by now all the Woodstock performers were household names. Bert’s angelic, acoustic delivery was punched home with an undeniable emotional reverb, reaching clear to the quarter-century mark. “Jennifer” was the song—the only one of his set to be captured in Woodstock Diaries, or anywhere else, it seemed. Bert would not get wind of this belated appreciation and fandom, however niche. He had died four years previous.
* Smile: The Music, Life, and Times of Bert Sommer, Woodstock’s Lost Artist (a work-in-progress)
i enjoyed this article very much, and followed the link to hear him sing Jennifer, which was lovely as well. I never heard of him before, but that shouldn’t count for much, since I haven’t heard of much, but still….so, it was nice to hear him now, plus he is beautiful…all that soft angelic hair…topped only by the astounding white afro in the audience–I want to know more about her!
Thanks for reading, Shawn! I am sure some Woodstock historian has found out all about her 🙂 She turns up in the Santana clips too. A photographer’s favorite for good reason!
Thanks Sharon , I love 💕 it, perfect
So glad to have your weigh-in!
Sharon – this is great! I can’t wait to read more….And it’s about time someone acknowledged dearest Bert!
Thrilled that you agree, Susan!